Berlin is often kind to me. With its policy of starting an evening out the next morning and continuing until seven, its numerous and relatively cheap eateries offering a variety of tastes throughout the day and its role as a focal point of modern European history, I find there are few places more appealing. This weekend I got the chance to visit Germany’s marvellous capital once more and this time, I was with Natalie. I’d like to think her first visit to Berlin didn’t disappoint, even if it did end in a, perhaps not unkind, but unexpected fashion.
We set off on Friday having managed to secure a Mitfahrgelegenheit from Halberstadt to an unspecified area of Berlin. I felt it would be good for Natalie to experience Germany’s unique car-sharing system and as an added bonus; we would both save on travel expenses. We arrived at Halberstadt station and after a quick Bockwurst, tried to hunt down Marco and his silver-grey Skoda Octavia. Unfortunately there were two silver-looking Skodas parked next to each other and as I don’t know my Octavias from my Fabias, I tentatively asked whether the man shutting his boot was the sought after Herr Wendt. It turns out it wasn’t but a short, bearded man making his way through the mist saved any embarrassment by confirming himself as the mysterious Marco.
Natalie and I decided it best that I sat in the front whilst she occupied the back so as not to make Marco seem like a chauffeur and be more prone to murdering us in an offended rage. Natalie got to share the back seat with a stuffed dog (a toy, I hasten to add) whilst I noticed Marco’s hoody had the word ‘killer’ emblazoned on the sleeve. It became apparent that he was merely a huge heavy metal fan and the upcoming Iron Maiden concert in Berlin could have had something to do with his travelling up there. I mentally prepared myself for lots of speaking but ended up dozing off whilst Nat kept watch and enjoyed the constant loud music blaring out from the speakers. Marco wasn’t really the chatty type.
We were dropped off in Wedding (which meant nothing to me) and headed for Alexanderplatz for some food and a few drinks. After enjoying a bite and some questionable karaoke from the locals, we made our way to Nonie’s who was very kindly putting us up for the night. We arrived very tired but as our host and her friends were planning a night out, had to be very careful not to get tempted into joining them. We agreed that joining them for a drink would be a good compromise and typically, Nonie had no problem with us sharing the wine we had brought as a thank you for allowing us to stay.
Here I had the opportunity to meet a couple of teaching assistants who were obviously loving their time in Berlin and the different experiences their jobs brought. I especially liked the sound of a midday nap, particularly as my (Sachsen-Anhalt’s) state motto is ‘we get up earlier’ which had I known, might have affected my choice of placement. Nat and Nonie found a mutual love of Hong Kong enough to keep them going all evening and it was only thanks to the occasional reminder that they should leave from none other than Prosecco Barney of Munich that prevented the group from joining us on a night in. It’s fair to say, Barney was not what I expected although he seemed a decent bloke and he even offered me a satsuma.
We left a very tired Nonie in the morning who informed us that the night had been a great success, although Barney sadly didn’t make it into the club on the basis that he was only 20. We thanked her immensely for her impeccable hospitality (where we were offered everything from brie to a toothbrush) and set off for a day of typical sightseeing.
The Brandenburg Gate was seen as I concluded once more that as far as gates go, this one, despite its size, isn’t actually very secure – they were much better off with the colourful wall. We explored the bizarre yet intriguing memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe before popping over the road to view the memorial to persecuted Homosexuals. After a brief look at the Reichstag whilst sipping on Glühwein, we decided that the bitter cold meant that food was the next best thing to experience, so long as it was enjoyed inside. We opted for a Bavarian-style joint which, despite its debatable authenticity, convinced me at least that Natalie was getting a feel for all four corners of this great European land.
Next on the list was Checkpoint Charlie, the site of the infamous standoff between Soviet and American tanks in 1961 and the most famous former border crossing point in the city. We declined all touristy offers from the overpriced museum to having a photo with a couple of ‘border guards’ but still managed to get a feel for the attraction by enjoying a coffee in the Checkpoint Café. The final stop on our day of being tourists in Berlin was the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall which is now almost completely decked out in (mainly) meaningful graffiti. Sadly, due to the slippery conditions underfoot, we couldn’t make it all the way down the gallery and returned to Alexanderplatz to check-in to the trusty Citystay Mitte Hostel and catch up on some rest.
Unfortunately, we took this opportunity to rest a bit too far. The concept that everything starts later in Germany, and particularly Berlin, was fully exploited on Saturday night as we ended up going out at 4.30 in the morning after only a little pre-drinking. This regrettably meant that we missed meeting Nonie, who I was counting on to fill me in on the edgy Kreuzberg nightlife, including ‘Gretchen’, our place of dwelling for the night (morning). Still, we had a good time, staying just as long as we would had we been out in England and compared to Saturday night prices in our capital city, the drinks were very reasonable. We left at around 7 and passing people going to Church or wherever, headed home to crash for most of the next day which was a shame considering we were only staying for a short time.
Still, Sunday was not to be wasted, and despite sleeping away the whole morning, we got the chance to visit the Museum of German History. Natalie particularly was feeling a bit worse for wear and her condition was not helped by the fact that the museum was set out chronologically. No disrespect to the Holy Roman Empire and Bismarck, but German history is most exceptional from the day they backed Austria-Hungary into war onwards. We were torn between getting our money’s worth by reading everything about King Charlemagne and feeling gradually worse or skipping ahead to the U-Boats but feeling a bit unfulfilled. In the end, we left just before nationwide unrest and a certain man with a little moustache became Chancellor. On the plus side, however, we did get to see a side of German history that is so often left unexplored and I got the chance to revisit the days of A-Level History and Martin Luther.
We returned to the hostel and after more coveted rest, prepared ourselves for one last big meal. I had read of a restaurant in Berlin set in complete darkness which, despite being fairly pricey, looked entertaining. The foyer had an executive aura, a bar stocked with premium drinks and two classily dressed women explaining the situation. The windows were covered by thick, dark curtains (perhaps survivors of the blackout days) and dimmed lighting created an atmosphere of fascination.
We were each given a menu where you could choose between five options (beef, poultry, seafood, vegetarian and surprise) before selecting whether you wanted soup for an additional 4 Euros. We somewhat killed the sense of class by immediately refusing the soup option and ordering tap waters but after both deciding on poultry, were ready to enter the darkness.
Our waiter Remy, who, disappointingly, wasn’t the rat from Ratatouille, was visually impaired and therefore at home in the pitch black. I was pleased to have someone who could see at least a little having noticed an earlier group enter the unknown with a woman who was full on Stevie Wonder blind. As we walked into the room, doing the slowest conga ever so as not to knock into people, the sensation was immediate and surreal. It really was pitch black as Remy turned into a human sat-nav and showed us to our table.
Our starters arrived immediately and it was a nightmare trying to use the cutlery. As well as not being able to see our food, we didn’t actually know what it was. In a bid to enhance the mystery even further, the restaurant described their meals as things like ‘a burst of Aztec masculinity’, ‘a delicate Asian breast’ and ‘a flowing, tangy stream’. Obviously I had specifically asked for my food to be void of anything remotely nutty, a standard practice I have when eating anything dubious. However, no sooner had we started (trying to) eat when Natalie informed me that our starters were satay chicken.
We both immediately began calling for help but Remy, being both semi-blind and unaware of our complication, took his time in reaching us. He finally led me outside, oblivious to the fact that my throat was gradually closing up as a result of the chefs trying to poison me. The girls at the bar were very attentive, offering me water, a seat, fresh air and a sick bowl. I informed them of the gravity of the situation, still baffled at how the chefs could have accidently served satay chicken to someone with a severe peanut allergy, and they phoned for an ambulance.
I proceeded to make myself sick in an attempt to bring up any chicken and sauce I had recently consumed and within minutes, the ambulance had arrived. Once inside, they asked me a few standard questions and I explained how I carried an epi-pen. As I had never taken it before and found the concept of having a massive needle in my thigh a little daunting, I asked the paramedic to administer it for me. However, he had no clue what he was doing and so I just shoved it in my leg without hesitation. It was almost painless and began to work immediately. The arrival of the emergency doctor improved my mood further but I was still frightened at what was happening and was concerned for Natalie’s welfare – after all, I had just left her in the dark (literally) and ended up inside an ambulance.
The trainee paramedic then had a go on me as he tried to attach me to some sort of drip. He failed to find a vein twice, just casually stabbing me in the hand, before the emergency doctor took charge and slotted the needle in effortlessly. He then gave me some more adrenaline which sent an unbearable pain to the back of my head. I couldn’t contain my screams as the female paramedic took on the role of mother and the emergency doctor kindly informed me that this was one of the most unfortunate reactions to adrenaline he had seen which was something to be proud of, I guess.
The pain didn’t subside but I did feel a lot safer and Natalie was with me now, on our way to the hospital. I was put in a stupidly bright room, which didn’t ease my headache, but a series of extremely good nurses and doctors came to my aid and made me feel comfortable. The chief nurse was very helpful, explaining everything clearly and simply in English for me. She also shared Eva Peron’s maiden name although I thought it might be a bit creepy if I told her that. The most entertaining nurse came in the form of a woman who looked like a very smiley version of Edna Mode from The Incredibles. Again she spoke in perfect English but through a somewhat psychotic smile informed me that my tongue was still huge and that at worst I would have to have a hole in my throat!
Fortunately, an emergency tracheotomy wasn’t necessary as my throat returned to almost normal and I was told I would spend the night in the Krankenhaus just in case. Sadly, Nat wasn’t allowed to stay with me as I wasn’t in intensive care. This was a real shame as all I really wanted was to have her there, for both our sakes. I was shown upstairs and attached to several wires. I slept peacefully enough although was awoken at 7am by a woman vacuuming. She literally couldn’t have cared less about me, turning on another hideously bright light before going about her cleaning duties as loud as possible.
I had a small but tasty breakfast where at least three nurses made the joke of it being completely nut-free. I then had a chat with Dr Schultz (whose name I found brilliant having just seen Django Unchained) who informed me that my mum had typically called in the night to check that I was okay. My last contact with a member of the staff came in the form of the dermatologist. She gave me some pills and bluntly asked me why I had eaten peanuts if I had such a bad allergy. I considered replying with ‘yolo’ but restrained as in this circumstance, the concept of ‘yolo’ would have been verified had things have turned out worse. In the end I just smiled as she was doing her best to speak to me in my native tongue.
Natalie eventually arrived to collect me after a short detour to another hospital – it turns out I hadn’t been too clear on directions – and we headed off back into the city centre. I was surprised I could just leave without having to pay or sign anything but leaving with a fresh set of medicines and a sense of good fortune, I was ready to go home.
Thank you to the staff at Unsicht-Bar Berlin (except maybe the chefs) for acting so quickly and being so helpful when it was clear I was suffering a reaction. Thank you to all the medical staff that cared for me (even the stab-happy trainee), they all spoke such good English and did everything they could to make me feel comfortable. Thank you to Natalie for realising so quickly that we were eating a peanut dish and buying me a precious five minutes which can make all the difference.